Punching above its weight

Head, body, head! C’mon!

Mark Wahlberg (right) stars as dogged pro boxer “Irish” Micky Ward

Mark Wahlberg (right) stars as dogged pro boxer “Irish” Micky Ward

Head, body, head!


These are instructions shouted in The Fighter, but they’re also descriptions of the impact of this spirited and tactile film, which boasts the year’s best ensemble cast.

It engages the mind, and also the body by proxy. You may not physically experience the punches that rain upon Mark Wahlberg’s dogged pro boxer “Irish” Micky Ward, but it feels as if you do.

Micky isn’t the only scrapper implied by that singularly misleading title. Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), Micky’s half-brother and full-on coach, friend and millstone, once had a ring career, too.

He went the distance against Sugar Ray Leonard in a controversial 1978 fight, and he’s never let anyone forget it. Dicky was the Pride of Lowell, Mass., the tough mill town where another free spirit, beat scribe Jack Kerouac, also hailed from.

Now it’s 1993, and Dicky is struggling to rebound from alcohol and crack abuse. It’s Micky’s turn to be the Pride of Lowell, by winning welterweight championship honours, and the two brothers couldn’t be more different.

Micky is taciturn, stolid, determined. Dicky is mouthy, restless and, to use his own words, “squirrelly as f–k.”

But Dicky knows how to fight and how to motivate. It’s he who shouts those instructions above. It’s his not-so-secret formula for success for guys who must get things done the hard way. Head, body, head! C’mon!

Lowell is a hard-knocks town for women, too. Micky and Dicky have seven sisters, who sit on the family couch like magpies on a steeple. They smoke and cuss and judge, but they’re fiercely loyal to family.

They don’t like Micky’s new girlfriend, barmaid Charlene (Amy Adams). Says one disapproving sis, “She’s like one of those MTV girls: Wild!”

Then there’s mom, Alice (Melissa Leo), done up like a hooker at a wedding in her tight pant suit ensemble. She’s Micky’s business manager, but she’s as useful as a horsefly, getting him into fights that are bad both for his ego and his body. Is she mothering Micky, or just using him?

Whatever the answer, Micky needs to fight his way off the family’s ropes if he ever hopes to succeed in the ring. He has to work “haaad” — the local way of saying “hard.”

Of this rough mix does director David O. Russell fashion an engrossing picture, one more concerned with family brawls than ringside ones. Russell’s last movie with Wahlberg was I Heart Huckabees, an existential mess from six years ago that didn’t make it past the first round down in the multiplex arena.

Russell has something to prove here, too. He returns to the more muscular storytelling style of 1999’s Three Kings, also co-starring Wahlberg, that viewed the first Persian Gulf War through cynical eyes.

The Fighter has been described as a labour of love for Wahlberg, who grew up in nearby Boston hearing about the true exploits of Lowell’s Micky and Dicky, who make brief curtain-call appearances.

Usually, when “labour of love” appears as a descriptor, earnest and timid results are guaranteed. Not so here. Wahlberg is incredibly generous, letting others shine around his understated performance.

And they do exactly that, especially Bale, who runs away with one of the most memorable performances of 2010. He dropped weight, thinned his hair and bucked-up his teeth for his crackerjack performance as Dicky.

He’s at once shocking, infuriating, pitiful, prideful and hilarious. Caught by Alice sneaking out of a crack house – he jumped out a back window – he gets her smile back by making her join in on his warble of the Bee Gees’ I Started a Joke.

Bale, Adams and Leo have all just received Screen Actors Guild Award nominations, while Wahlberg joins them in an additional nod for Outstanding Cast Performance. Watch for Oscar nominations to come.

The Fighter is a movie that just goes for it, and that includes director Russell.

He closes in tight on anxious and pummeled faces. His camera is also “squirrelly as f–k,” but he’s keeping up with the action, both inside and outside the ring.

He’s fighting, too: he has to convince people that The Fighter isn’t just a boxing movie. It’s 12 rounds of hard living, but you can’t knock the pride out of someone who believes in himself.

Peter Howell is a syndicated movie critic for The Toronto Star.